Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Sex and Beauty as Tools of Power 

Throughout the novel, Evelyn uses her sex appeal and physical attractiveness to gain power that’s otherwise denied to her by a patriarchal society. Growing up as a poor child of color with an abusive father, Evelyn has many disadvantages that could prevent her from succeeding. At a young age, she realizes that her beauty is a kind of currency, and though she often doesn’t have agency over how she spends that currency—several times, men coerce her into sexual acts she doesn’t want—she uses sex to her advantage as much as possible. She trades her virginity for a ride to Hollywood and trades a sexual act with a much older producer for her first film roles. Evelyn is too young and powerless to consent to these acts, and she describes the negative impact that unwanted sexual acts have had on her. However, as Evelyn grows older and savvier, she gains more control over her own sexuality. She learns to wield her sexual power not only to gain success but also to gain the kind of autonomy that prevents unwanted sexual advances and coercion. Evelyn also gains control over how her sexual image is perceived by her audience, creating the scandalous stories that mask the truth of her romantic life in the press, editing the iconic scene in Boute-en-Train, and eventually defining when and how her true sexual identity will be released to the public.

The Incompatibility of Ambition and Morality 

Throughout Evelyn’s life, her ambition comes into conflict with her morality. Early in their conversation, Evelyn instructs Monique to go for what’s best for her career without regard for what is right. Evelyn acknowledges that she did something morally questionable in using and discarding Ernie, but she is unapologetic due to success she acheived as a result. During their first conversation, Celia tells Evelyn that she is a terrible person for using people and for doing whatever it takes to get ahead. Simultaneously, Celia excuses Evelyn’s behavior, saying she admires how honest Evelyn is about her ambition. Though Evelyn’s ruthlessness is acknowledged from the beginning, Celia is repeatedly heartbroken over Evelyn’s choices after they fall in love. She perceives many of these choices to be cruel and unfaithful such as sleeping with Mick and filming the risqué sex scene in Three A.M. Ultimately, it’s Evelyn’s inability to choose love over ambition that repeatedly drives the her and Celia apart. Moreso, hiding the truth about Monique’s father’s death is both an act of self-preservation and a fierce move to protect her family. As she grows older, Evelyn becomes less ambitious both because her priorities change and because Hollywood becomes less interested in her. As her drive to succeed lessens, she becomes more guided by her morals and sheds the trappings of fame to be with the people she loves. She aims to care for Celia in her final years and to provide financially for Grace and Monique.  

Hiding the Truth as a Means of Survival 

Throughout the novel, several characters must hide the truth of who they love and who they are in order to survive and thrive in a homophobic society. Harry is so deeply closeted that he’s hesitant to say out loud to Evelyn that he is gay, though he trusts her and knows that she already knows about his sexuality. When Ruby tells Evelyn that Celia is a lesbian, she does it in the hopes of ending Celia’s promising career. This underscores how much Evelyn, Celia, and Harry have at stake and just how crucial it is to their success that they stay in the closet. As a result, Evelyn and Celia go to great lengths to hide their romance from the public. They hide in each other’s homes while refusing to be seen in public together, and they take on beards, or false heterosexual spouses. Evelyn goes through the traumatizing experience of seducing, sleeping with, marrying, and divorcing Mick all while dealing with the resulting pregnancy and abortion. She does so in a concerted effort to prevent rumors about her romantic relationship with Celia. These efforts ultimately lead to the women’s first break up, which suggests how corrosive and heartbreaking it can be to hide one's sexuality. The whole process harms the very love Evelyn that is trying to protect. It is only when Evelyn has given up her fame that she can relax more into being "out" with her partner. However, the pressure to hide never fully eases. Even when Harry and Evelyn grieve the loss of their true spouses, the sinister eye of the media is present. It misperceives them both and reminds them of the true threat of exposure. At the end of her life, Evelyn struggles to say aloud that she is bisexual. This suggests that though she and the society she lives in may be freer in the present, the threat of alienation and oppression is still alive and well. 

The Unreliability of Appearances 

The media in the novel serves to create and uphold appearances, whether or not they reflect reality. Throughout Evelyn’s life, media coverage focuses on her appearance. The first article written about her in 1957 describes her only as “beautiful” and “a sparkling blonde.” Sixty years later, the 2017 press clippings still focus primarily on Evelyn’s physical beauty. The blog post in particular contains breathless descriptions of Evelyn’s blonde hair, eyebrows, skin, and breasts. These articles illustrate that the press has not matured in the six decades they’ve been writing about Evelyn and that, when it comes to the media’s representation of Evelyn, appearance takes precedence over character. Evelyn learns to use this to her advantage by manipulating appearances to control how the press both perceives and represents her. For example, to distract the media from rumors of Celia and Evelyn’s relationship, Evelyn fakes a tryst with Mick, resulting in a flurry of articles and speculation. To boost ticket sales, Evelyn marries again, this time wedding her costar, and the media takes her bait, providing rapt coverage about Evelyn and Rex’s chemistry on and off-screen. Just as Evelyn dyes her hair blonde to cover up her Cuban identity and wears pancake makeup to hide the bruises Don gives her, she shifts, manipulates, and covers up what her life looks like in order to build a sellable story in the papers that will boost her career. By manipulating appearances, she’s able to hide her secrets and her true identity from the public eye.